Alex Hems: Head's Blog Oct 9, 2017
Alex Hems’ Open Morning Speech 7th October 2017
Welcome to St George's. I am Alex Hems, and I have the great privilege of leading this school.
There are four key elements to St George’s that I hope you will take away in your memories of today. We are an all-girls’ school because we believe passionately in promoting opportunities for girls and value the ability to tailor our teaching to their needs. We are an all-through school, meaning that our curriculum is planned as a coherent whole across the school and our care of the girls benefits from excellent communication and continuity at every stage. Our very youngest pupils enjoy specialist teaching in Physical Education, Music, Art, Drama and Languages and have access to all the facilities of a secondary school, while having their own quiet, specially designed space and outdoor classroom in the Nursery. Thirdly this is an all-round education, brimming with opportunity to enable every girl to find something that is special for her, which we hope will remain with her, perhaps lighting the spark that will become a life-long passion. The fourth element is that, while very much a community, we respond to every girl here as an individual and encourage our students to find their own voices as they grow.
At St George’s we are preparing girls to step out into their futures, into careers as diverse as medicine, computer game design, engineering, architecture, astrophysics and neuroscience. We know that the working world of the future might look quite different from that which many of us have known. We cannot predict exactly what that will mean for the students of today, but employers are clear that what they want to see is creativity, flexibility and the ability to collaborate. We aim to cultivate these attributes in all our girls, at every stage in their school career. Activities like the Model United Nations group, Young Enterprise, debating, CCF and DOf E in the Upper School, or the Five Pounds Challenge for Primary 6s, productions and concerts for all ages, all help to develop communication, teamwork and planning.
We set great value by developing leadership potential at St George’s. In the Junior School we have House Captains in Primary 5 for each of our 6 Houses, and this is replicated in Lower School, where we also have a Head Girl and Deputy who are in S1. Girls in Primary 6 and 7 take part in Student Council and represent their form classes on the Eco and Charity Committees. Girls in Upper Sixth, sixth year, all have opportunities to take on roles within the school, as form prefects for younger classes, as House Captains, Sports Prefect, or leading groups such as our International Committee. And then, of course, there is the Head Girl, with her team of Deputy Head Girl, Senior Prefect and Head of Boarding. Whether it's writing for or editing our magazine Independent Women, debating, developing a piece of student-led drama or speaking up at POW WOW, the whole school Student Council, there are plenty of opportunities for developing one's own voice and identity.
As an all girls' school of course, all these positions of responsibility will be held by girls. All the role models amongst the student community here are female. I have been delighted since I have been here to see how many girls participate in sport and physical education, right up to our senior students. At an age when many girls are self-conscious about putting on leggings and getting a bit sweaty they are taking part in hockey, netball, tennis, athletics, swimming, badminton, squash and cross country running. Our students can leave behind gendered stereotypes and an overly sexualised world at the school gate, and devote themselves to the business of learning and having fun without the inhibitions that a mixed learning environment can create. When I sit in my Lower School office it is lovely to hear the sounds of girls playing outside in the grounds, and letting themselves be children for that little bit longer. An all girls’ school does not have to mean that this is an all-girls’ life of course. We have a strong connection with Merchiston Castle School and a busy programme of socials with the boys throughout the year. Girls from St George’s are currently rehearsing in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and some of their boys are here regularly at the moment as we prepare for our Upper School play, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
The size and structure of the school are key elements I think to our success. Our youngest children join us at the age of 2 in the Nursery, and progress through into the pre-school class and on to Junior School, until the end of Primary 5. At that point, they move into Lower School, across the road on the Lansdowne site, where we house Primary 6 and 7, and S1, which we call Lower 4. At St George’s we start secondary education earlier than other schools in Scotland, so girls in Primary 7, known here as Remove, have separate, specialist teachers from the Upper School for all their subjects and start to take responsibility for themselves by moving from room to room for lessons. By the time they move into S1 they are old hands at organising themselves and are ready to take on the positions of responsibility that come with being the oldest year in Lower School. When they move into Upper School at the start of S2, they are already familiar with many of the teachers as they have seen them in their classrooms for the last two years in Lower School. Here at St George’s students follow two-year GCSE courses, leading to examination at age 16, at the end of S4. Most girls will take 9 or 10 subjects, giving them the benefit of both breadth and depth of study. This provides an excellent foundation for their Higher courses in S5 or Lower Sixth. The majority will take 5 Highers, and with those under their belts, will move on to a final year of Advanced Highers, more Highers or a combination of both. We help every girl to find the combination of courses that is right for her and that will give her the springboard that she needs into her chosen route after St George’s.
Although not a large school by Edinburgh standards, at the upper end we have a large and thriving Sixth Form, which enables us to offer over 20 courses at Higher and Advanced Higher, but we are still small enough that we can design our timetables around the girls’ choices. Every girl here can be well known, by her teachers and by her peers. We believe that everyone benefits from high expectations, but we are certainly not a hot-house. Classes are small. Our knowledge of the girls and excellent communication across the school lie at the heart of our pastoral care, which again is based on responding to every girl as an individual, and working in partnership with you as parents to ensure the best outcomes for each child here.
As I said at the start, a St George’s education is a preparation for a future, one that could take your daughters across the globe as their careers develop. Fostering the understanding of the global workplace is deeply embedded here. Our extensive programme of exchanges, with the USA, Canada, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, offers our students the opportunity to learn about other cultures from the inside, and our community, in turn, is enriched by their exchange partners when they come over here to spend between three and five weeks with us. From Junior School upwards we also run digital exchanges with countries across the world, based around curriculum areas that we have in common. Our boarding house brings a much valued international dimension into the heart of school life, and also offers a home from home experience to many Scottish girls who live just that bit too far away to make the journey back every day.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh